A step by step guide to becoming an SEO master

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So you want to become an SEO master. 93% of the time people hop onto the internet it's to use a search engine.

Needless to say, SEO is crucial for your business to be found and succeed. If you want to increase the traffic to your website and bring in more leads as a result, then search engine optimization is something you’ll want to play closer attention to.

SEO gets a reputation for being difficult and requiring high-priced consultants to work their wizardry and never be seen again. In reality you can get 95% of the effort with 5% of the work. There is a great deal of misinformation when it comes to SEO. Some of it is subtle, but some of it is widely spread and believed by so called 'experts'.

SEO is very simple as a concept and can be implemented with a few good habits and best practices for any small to medium sized company without the help of an agency. It’s just a matter of knowing the tools at your disposal, and where to start.

How Google Works

To better understand what we need to do for SEO let’s look back at how Google started, how it’s evolving today, and develop a groundwork from which we can understand how to get ranked on Google.

Where it all began

Let's go all the way back to the beginning. You may be quite familiar with Google as the company that pretty much owns everything, but you might not know where it all began. Larry Page and Sergei Brin were students at Stanford when they first teamed up and started thinking about a better way to search. As students they noticed how often scientific studies referred to famous papers, such as the theory of relativity. These references acted almost like a vote — the more your work was referenced the more important it must be. If they took the time to manually download and analyze each paper, they could probably rank them. If only there was a way to do that at scale, and automatically - but not just for research papers, for every day searches too.

And so, Google was born.

How Google has evolved

Google works largely the same way today, though with a tad more nuance (scratch that, quite a bit more). For example, not all links carry the same weight. A link from an authoritative site (like the New York Times) is much more valuable than a link from a non-authoritative site (like a personal blog).

Google's purpose, and primary differentiator as a search engine, is to find the “best” (or most popular) web page for the words you type into the search bar. It's what has made them so successful, and keeps other options lagging behind: Google just provides the best results (or at least, the most relevant).

To be found you need to make it clear to google what your page is about, and drive traffic to your site so . Google knows it's worth visiting. It's easier said than done, but that's where SEO comes into play.

You can't outsmart Google

Google is a very smart company, so trying to outsmart them with 'black hat' techniques isn't the way to go. If you get too far into the SEO rabbit hole you’ll start stumbling upon spammy ways to attempt to speed up this process. It might work in the short term, but it will hurt your site's performance in the long run.

Instead of black hat tactics this article will focus on building real growth and forming relationships. The idea is to build a following, and be seen as an industry thought leader. That's how you grow traffic organically, and ultimately acquire leads from your site visitors.

Becoming an SEO master: On-Page SEO

The first step in getting your site to rank on Google is making sure it's crystal clear what your site is all about. For this post we're going to focus on the home page and your blog. The goal is to rank for one keyword that isn’t your brand or company name. It's a given that you'll (hopefully) rank for your company name, when you can rank for a keyword in your industry that's when you've made it.

Keyword Research

The first step is knowing which keywords you want to focus on. If you're just starting out this can be a bit more time consuming, though if your site has been up for a while and has had pretty good traffic it's a bit easier. Either way, the strategy will be the same it just may take more time to see results.

Focus on long-tail keywords

A common concept in SEO is 'long tail keywords'. This means that there are broad keywords that get a ton of searches, and there are more descriptive/niche keywords that are searched for less (but also have less competition). This is displayed in the chart below:

In SEO this matters because in the beginning you should go after long tail keywords to maximize the impact your work makes, and then once you've built a steady following move to the left of the chart and focus on broader keywords.

Your site isn’t going to outrank ultra-competitive keywords in the beginning, but by being more specific you can start winning very targeted traffic with much less effort.

Finding the right keywords

Fortunately much of this process can be done in Centori.

We're going to use our website as an example for specific keywords we want to rank for. We'll break down choosing a broad keyword and finding long tail keywords to aim to rank for.

Step 1: Brainstorming and Keyword Generating

The first step is identifying keywords or topics that you care about for your business.

Using Centori's own site as an example these might be:

  • SEO software
  • Content marketing 
  • Digital Marketing
  • Inbound marketing

Try to get a solid list of five to start with.

Now we’ll plug each topic into Centori as a new topic, and autogenerate a list of related long tail keywords that Google often suggests. This will take our list of 5 topics and turn it into a list of 40 or so keyword options. Here's a breakdown by topic:

SEO software

Content Marketing

Digital marketing

Step 2: Estimating traffic

Now that we have a pretty good list of keywords. Our next step is to figure out if they have enough search volume to be worth our while. The goal is to find keywords that are in demand and being searched for, but do not present so much competition to rank for them that you don't stand a chance appearing in search results. Fortunately this is fairly simple as well.

In Centori we provide search data (pictured above) as well as historical search trends - we'll show that in just a moment.

For a deep analysis, we also recommend Google Keyword Planner. Though the tool is primarily geared towards advertisers it provides a great deal of benefit for organic rankinng as well.  Google doesn’t make any promise of accuracy, so these numbers are likely only directionally correct, but they’re enough to get us on the right track. Google has made some recent enhancemnets to the interface which add some neat bells and whistles when it comes to estimating traffic,

You’ll have to have an AdWords account to be able to use the tool, but you can create one for free if you haven’t use AdWords in the past.  Once you’ve logged in, select “Get search volume data and trends. ”Paste in your list of keywords, and click “Get search volume. ” Once you’ve done so, you’ll see a lot of graphs and data.

Now what we’re going to do is decide what traffic we want to go after.

This varies a bit based on how much authority your site has. So let’s try to determine how easy it will be for you to rank. We'll want to choose a topic and then pick the keywords that are getting the most search volume month over month.

Here are ours:

  • small business seo
  • small business seo company
  • best seo for small business
  • simple seo software

Spotting keyword trends

Centori makes this easy as well by plotting keyword search data over the past year giving you insight into how searches are trending. You can also use Google Trends to get an estimate of this data.

For my keywords it looks like this:

Now we’ll take a deeper look at what the competition is like for those two keywords.

Analyzing keyword rank difficulty

In order to analyze how difficult it will be to rank for a certain keyword, we’re going to have to look at the keywords manually, one by one. Fortunately, this is quite easy in Centori as well thanks to the rank difficulty and competitor data that we provide.

For each keyword in the table we show the cost per click analysis (how much Google Ads charges on average per click, more expensive is more sought after) along with 'rank difficulty' which essentially shows how much competition there is for this keyword. 1 is basically none, 100 is very crowded, ie. a lot of other sites are writing about this keyword.

With our competitor data you can view the top competitors, their estimated traffic, and industry for each of the saved keywords you are monitoring. Here's an example for those keywords in our 'seo software' cluster.

We can see the sites that are in the space for seo software, the value of the traffic they get (ie what they would have spent on the traffic they get for our tracked keywords but get for free due to their seo), and the number of our cluster keywords that they rank for. Obviously searchengineland is benefiting quite a bit from the keywords we are monitoring, whereas bluecorona.com is an easier competitor to beat out.

Armed with this data, you can get an idea of what you're up against for the keywords you are monitoring.  If you have a brand new site it will take a month or two to start generating the number of links to get to page one. If you have an older site with more links it may just be a matter of getting your on-page SEO in place. Generally it will be a mixture of both.

A checklist to optimize your content

The hard part is over!

You've got your keywords chosen, they look like they'll drive some good traffic to your site and you stand a chance at ranking for them. Now it's time to tell Google what your website is all about. This is as simple as making sure the right keywords are in the right places.

Most of this has to do with html tags, which make up the structure of a webpage. Most CMS platforms (content management systems) provide this out of the box (think Wordpress, SquareSpace, HubSpot). If you don’t know html or understand how it works, just pass this list to a developer and they should be able to help you.

Here is a simple checklist you can follow to see if your content is optimized.

On-Page SEO Checklist

  • Your keyword is in the <title> tag
  • Your keyword is used in the first paragraph
  • Your keyword is in the first header tag (<h1> tags are good!)
  • If your page contains additional header tags (<h2>, <h3>, etc) your keyword or synonyms are in most of them
  • Any images on the page have an <alt> tag that contain your chosen keyword
  • Your keyword is in the meta description (and there is a meta description)
  • There is at least 400 words of text on the page (at least 800 for a blog post)
  • Your keyword appears in the URL
  • Your keyword (or synonyms — Google recognizes them now) is used other times throughout the page
  • The page is original content not taken from another page and dissimilar from other pages on your site

If you have all of that in place you've got a blog post/page set up for success.

Off-Page SEO

Off-Page SEO is all about what happens outside of your website (hence the name off page). What it boils down to though is links. How many links do you have back to your website?  Google looks at each link on the web as a weighted vote. The more links to you, the more authoritative Google will see you as.

Link Building

Link building is where SEO really starts to matter, and where you can easily run into trouble.

Personally, I've gotten countless emails from folks asking me to link to their website, it's annoying and weird, and immediately puts me in a seat of distrust. That's not what you want to do. Larger companies get people flowing in through press requests which is great... but likely not the stage you're at.  That's okay.

For folks starting out, guest blogging is an excellent way to go as it allows you to spread your brand across sites and link back to your own. This builds relationships and trust with the community you are trying to build, and gives you an SEO boost as well.

If guest blogging seems intimidating, then there are some simpler methods as well in this next section.

Web 2.0s

The easiest way to build high quality links are what SEOs call “web 2.0s. ” That’s just a way to say “social sites” or sites that let you post stuff. Now tweeting a link into the abyss won’t do you anything, but profiles, status pages, etc. do carry some weight. And if they come from a popular domain that counts as a link.

Some of the easiest are:

  • Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn bios
  • YouTube (the description of a video — it has to actually get views)
  • Upvote-based sites (HackerNews, Reddit, GrowthHackers, Inbound. org, etc.)

If nothing else you can start there and get a few links easily.    

Becoming an Authority

The setup work is done! If you've come this far you've put a tremendous amount of effort in and have a website set up for success. You're armed with keywords you stand a chance at ranking for, have some external sites and resources linking to you - now it's just a matter of getting traffic from Google.

Let's talk about that next.

Understand your personas and create content

The first rule of creating content is knowing who you are creating it for.

If you don't have your customer personas in mind, any content you create will just be shouting into the void. To guide your content strategy you'll want to keep two-three buyer personas in mind. These personas should be detailed mini biographies describing your customer, their role, the problems they face, and the goals they want to meet.

We've written on creating buyer personas before, to illustrate here though our personas would be:

Startup Sam

Sam is in his late twenties to late thirties and is running a startup, it is his first or second startup and he knows a decent amount about marketing but would not consider himself an expert. Sam has a cofounder and a few interns, he wants to improve his site's traffic and conversion metrics. Sam struggles staying on top of the content his business puts out along with the other duties he takes on.

Small Business Steve

Steve is in his thirties-fifties and runs a small business, he has been in business for 8+ years and has traditionally relied on networking/word of mouth to grow his brand along with traditional advertising. He knows having a website is important so he set one up with SquareSpace/Wordpress but isn't seeing customers come through. Steve needs someone to show him how to effectively create content, and teach him basic marketing principles.

Marketing Mary

Mary works for a small-medium sized company on a small marketing team. Mary has 5+ years experience in marketing and is familiar with SEO, social media marketing, and email marketing but managing her team and meeting goals is difficult. Mary uses a system of spreadsheets and task management apps to measure progress, but creating reports every month on her progress is hard as she finds she runs often runs out of time.

Knowing your personas helps you to know your customers. This exercise forces you to understand who you are trying to reach, the problems they have, the questions they ask, and where your company fits in.

Create content regularly

Now that you know the keywords you want to target and who you are trying to reach, it's time to create some content. When it comes to how often you should be blogging, it depends: it's a matter of how much time you can dedicate, what your competition is doing, and how much material you have to write about.  

Once a week is a good cadence to start at if you've never blogged before. An 800-word post should probably take 1-2 hours total to draft, then an extra 30 minutes or so to edit and then publish on your website. Writing one post a week gives you 50 posts published in a year (accounting for holidays). This builds you a library of content to share to your followers. This is important because your blog shouldn't just be a stagnant collection of content. Once you have a library of posts built up you can organize them into structured resources called 'pillar pages'.

Organize your content into pillar pages

Now that you've been blogging consistently, it's time to organize your content and build SEO goldmines across your site. This is one of the best things you can do to truly master SEO and improve your site's structure.

Pillar pages are pieces of long-form content that link out to related pages across your website. If you've got 5 or so blog posts around a topic then you can collect them into a pillar page on your website. Pillar pages are great for SEO because they help build your internal links in your site and they tell Google you're an authority for a topic. If you have content-heavy page (say 2000 words) that links to several blog posts it tells Google you know what you're talking about.

Once you've been blogging about a topic consistently, it's time to organize those posts into a pillar page - fortunately Centori makes these pages easy to identify by collecting and tagging your site pages each time we crawl it:

Once you've built up enough content, start organizing it!

SEO can be difficult, but it's not rocket science

SEO can be hard, but in time you can master it and see results for your business.

If this seems like a lot don't worry - we've tried to outline the entire optimization and content creation process, but it will take time and practice to get this down for your business. 

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